Friday, June 7, 2013

The Future of Ardbeg - or What is in Their Warehouse?

This week seems to have turned into Ardbeg week, with reviews of the 10 Year and Uigeadail expressions following on the heels of Ardbeg Day last weekend.

© K&L Spirits Journal Blog
The fundamental question I got out of those reviews is "what does Ardbeg have in their warehouses these days?" When the distillery was purchased in 1997, it took roughly another year to rebuild it to the point where it could operate at full capacity again. By then, most of the stocks were either from before 1983, when the distillery was shuttered for six years, or from 1990 onward, though not much of it. So the first release was a 17 year old, which drew from stocks produced in the early 1980s. However, that only continued until 2004, when they hit the hole in their stocks. A stop-gap was created, in the form of Airigh Nam Beist, a 1990 vintage dated whisky (there were three bottles released in 2006-2008, which varied from 16-18 years old) made from stocks produced right after production restarted. There was also a one-off 25 year old Lord of the Isles release in 2007, composed from a vatting of whisky distilled in 1974-1976, but it was phenomenally expensive and very limited.

Throughout this period, the only other age dated whisky in Ardbeg's stable was the 10 year old. This has been put out consistently since 1999. However, by doing some math, it's not hard to see that a lot of much older whisky from the pre-1983 period must have gone in, because 10 year old stocks from the post-1989 period were extremely limited. This meant that the 10 YO bottles were often spectacular, because so much old stock was being added to pad them out. However, it was clear that this situation wouldn't last forever. Distillation began again in 1998 and Ardbeg started releasing yearly bottles as their stock aged, beginning with Very Young (For Discussion) in 2003, followed by Very Young (2004), Still Young (2006), Almost There (2007), and finally Renaissance (2008), which was the first 10 year old whisky distilled under Glenmorangie's ownership. This was a watershed moment, because it meant that Ardbeg finally had enough stock to keep their product pipeline full. However, it also meant significant changes in flavor, both because the distillery was no longer packing their 'younger' and cheaper bottles with old stock and because distilling practices had changed. This is clear both in the tasting notes made by those following Ardbeg's evolution.

As I noted at the beginning, all of this begs the question of what's left in Ardbeg's warehouses. One of
the eternal dilemmas for any distiller is how much whisky to sell now and how much to save for later. Because of the 1980s hole in their stocks and the lower production volumes during most of the 90s, Ardbeg had to cannibalize its older stocks just to keep putting out its basic expressions during the early years of Glenmorangie ownership. For instance, all of the Airigh Nam Beist expressions were from a single year, 1990. Why didn't Ardbeg continue the series by releasing whiskies from 1991-1996 as they aged? Was all of the stock consumed in putting out the 10 Year bottles? If they still had much stock from the 1990s, a lot of it could now be bottled as 18+ years old, which could be sold for a mint. But pretty much all of the old stuff bottled by Ardbeg has been from the mid- to late-70s.
Bordeaux Casks © Whisky-News

Instead, when special releases have been put out since 2008, they have pretty much all been NAS. I've talked about this a bit before and it's now clear that Ardbeg is trying to conserve the older whisky that it does have on hand, rather than using it to enhance their NAS releases. When Ardbeg does let us know what's inside, it's all 9-12 years old, usually with some kind of cask finish. This seems to highlight the influence of Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden, who is a big proponent of complex wood management to produce new flavors in whisky. The obsession is, as noted by Oliver Klimek, a fairly new trend that may be a way to deal with the fact that modern techniques for fermenting and distilling have made the whisky coming off the stills less flavorful, making it necessary for the spirit to get more from the casks. In Ardbeg's case, this may be a combination of their lack of supply (there's only so much flavor you can get into a whisky in under a dozen years) and the change in distilling practices since Glenmorangie took ownership (in addition to older changes like the loss of on-site maltings). Given the huge variety of casks used in special edition Ardbeg's of the last few years (alligator char casks, marsala, French oak, etc.), it's clear that this has been a focus for the new management in dealing with their supply issues. But it also feels a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks.

All of this is to say, don't expect anything old out of Ardbeg any time soon. Bill Lumsden has categorically stated on the K&L Spirits Journal podcast that he will not be rereleasing the 17 Year, despite demand, both because he doesn't think he can recreate the late-70s/early-80s style of whisky that went into those bottles and because they simply don't have the stocks of 1990s whisky to do it. It's possible that age dated whiskies older than the 10 Year will come on-line again, since the whisky created under Glenmorangie ownership is now potentially 15 years old, but I wouldn't count on it. Ardbeg's customers seem more or less happy to pay good money for younger whisky with no age statement, so I expect that they will ride this out unless sales start to slip. Which is certainly a risk given the changes that they are going through. Their reputation in the new millennium was built on selling older whisky at young whisky prices, but now the situation is reversed. Will their reputation be able to withstand the lack of anything really mature in their pipeline? Will the new style whisky age as gracefully as that made before Glenmorangie took over? All unknowable right now. As they say, only time will tell.

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